Friday, November 14, 2008

The Videogame Solipsist: Gamecube

The most unique thing about the Nintendo Gamecube, at least in my corner of the world, was that it was the only console I can remember getting on launch day. Well, technically, my parents got it for me for Christmas and weren't clear on whether they picked it up on launch day or afterward. Either way, I was a Gamecube owner from as close to day one as I ever got, and so I had a first row seat for the ride that would follow. I've always thought of the Gamecube as the strangest console Nintendo ever put out, and so my thoughts and feelings on it are a jumble.

For starters, the first console of every generation I got since the days of the NES was always the loser in that console generation. Well, the Sega Genesis didn't lose to the SNES, but it could have had a good year or two more of life before Sega mishandled the poor thing, releasing useless add-ons like the Sega CD and 32X which ruined all good faith in the Sega name. During the next generation, I got a N64 first and though everyone I know owned one and loved it, the Playstation inarguably stomped it in terms of sales and number of great games on a consistent basis. The next generation, I got a Dreamcast, which was an amazing console with great games that died before its time. After its demise, I bet on the Gamecube, hoping Nintendo had learned their lessons. Within a year I had purchased a Playstation 2. Sigh...

Not that they didn't try. It's just that for every right step they took, they took another bad one. The Gamecube used discs instead of carts!! But they were proprietary discs. The Gamecube had actual RPGs!! But only a handful. The Gamecube had a decent launch line-up that consisted of more than two games!! But the Mario game was freaking Luigi's Mansion, which is not a Mario game at all. The Gamecube had cool multiplayer games!! But they hadn't made the leap to Internet play quite yet and were still stuck in the days of split screen while also adding the Gamecube-to-Gameboy-Advance cable debacle that was Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. Oh, Nintendo. The saddest thing about the Gamecube is that--though it was superior in every way--it sold less than the Nintendo 64. Probably because the Xbox captured the Goldeneye crowd with Halo on the Xbox, but whatever.

I keep looking at the release date for the Gamecube and I can't believe it. November 2001?? The reason this seems ridiculous to me is that the ten or so games I most associate with the system and the enjoyment I derived from it are spread out over a five year span. Roughly, that's two games a year, which might be enough for some people though not the sort of people you want to associate with. For as much as I remember loving the Gamecube, I think this had more to do with the fact that I ended up owning a Playstation 2 and Xbox at the same time. So when those two games a year came, I was able to hook my Gamecube back up and remember why Nintendo could be awesome. Those ten or so games, and my thoughts, follow.

1) Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader- I played the hell out of this game though I remember, just like its predecessor, I reached a certain point where it gets ball bustingly hard and I gave up. Still, every console launch needs a game to be somewhat decent and showcase both its graphics and the controller, and I think this game was the best case for owning a Gamecube at launch. No offense, Super Monkey Ball.

2) Super Smash Bros. Melee- Since this was and remains one of the best loved games for the Gamecube, I find it very demonstrative of how focused Nintendo had become on system launchs first and then slowly trickling one or two good games out a year after that. Melee has the distinction of being the most 'hardcore' of the Smash Bros. games, by which I mean people were able to take it seriously enough to have tournaments around it. In comparison to the first game or this year's Brawl, it's without a doubt the most 'technical' of the three. I liked Melee a lot though none of my friends played it, so my time with it was short lived.

3) Pikmin- The three games above were the only things I played on the Gamecube until Animal Crossing almost a year later. I should be talking about Pikmin right here, but to be frank I like the idea of Pikmin more than the game itself. I hate games with time limits and those with trial and error gameplay elements even more. Moreover, Pikmin is a good example of "it's a good game, but I don't care", an issue that is currently making me regret my Wii purchase. This is fundamental to Nintendo's console hardware. They may squeeze out two great games a year, but if you have no interest in playing said games, what good is it to own their systems?? Still, I give them a lot of credit for making a new IP and I'll be interested to see what the Wii-enhanced third entry in the series is like.

4) Super Mario Sunshine- I've never played this game. It always pissed me off that, instead of another great Mario game, they added in a gimmicky mechanic. Plus the whole 'summer' vibe of it was unspeakably lame, like someone released a summer expansion pack or ROM hack of Mario 64 with better graphics. I know this game sold like mad but it seemed to represent that Nintendo was taking risks at an ill-advised time in their history. Zelda: Wind Waker was a similar risk though it's my favorite Zelda, so...I got nothin'. If they were smart they would have done for the Gamecube what they ended up doing for the Wii: a mostly by-the-numbers-but-dark-and-serious-looking Zelda and a revolutionary Mario title.

5) Animal Crossing- Looking back, we should've seen this as the point where Nintendo began to go after a casual audience. You could make the argument that the Gamecube was their last attempt to win the hardcore back but they never had enough games during any one season to keep us loyal. Thus games like Animal Crossing, which was kind of like Nintendo's version of The Sims only a lot less freeform and way more time consuming. I'll never forget the moment I realized I would either have to constantly change the system's internal clock to see the cool events in the game OR base my life around it. "You mean I have to wake up at 7 a.m., real time, to enter this fishing tournament?? No thanks."

6) Metroid Prime- It was with Metroid Prime that I felt my investment in a Gamecube was worthwhile, since it was getting monumental review scores and everyone loved it. I never got all that far into the game because I couldn't get used to the controls. The general consensus seems to be that this was the best in the Prime series and so I find myself wishing they would port this to Wii and utilize the incredible motion control from Prime 3.

7) The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker- Despite its most glaring flaw--the infamous Triforce hunt toward the end of the game--everything about Wind Waker was genius. Along with Majora's Mask, it's the most unique Zelda game insofar as the world it creates as well as the pacing and flow of the game. I really can't stand Majora's Mask but I respect it for its world and the weird 'three day'/'time manipulation' pacing/flow. But I think Wind Waker did both better. It was a breath of fresh air but it was also a great game, too. In many ways Twilight Princess never interested me because it was too much like Ocarina of Time and did nothing truly 'new.' I realize that sailing around the world is basically just a different version of walking around the world on the ground/riding a horse, so Wind Waker wasn't truly 'new' either, but in terms of the actual gameplay 'feel' of traveling/exploring by ship, it's entirely different. Anyway, this ended up being my favorite Gamecube title, so take that for what it's worth.

8) Mario Kart: Double Dash!!- I never played this game because once I realized it and Super Mario Sunshine were imagination-less sequels to their N64 predecessors, I knew I didn't need to play them. Unless you have a lot of friends and don't want to play anything that requires real skill, you can skip every Mario Kart from here to Hell.

9) Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door- 2004 was the RPG year for the Gamecube, with a Paper Mario sequel alongside a Final Fantasy game and Tales of Symphonia. Unfortunately, the Final Fantasy game was a fucking mess that required four people, each with Gameboy Advances and Gamecube-to-GBA cables, to enjoy, while the Tales game was, in my estimation, incredibly overrated because it was one of the only exclusive RPGs for the system. But I digress. The Gamecube Paper Mario was pretty good even if I never beat it. It struck a better balance between platforming/action and RPG than the Wii sequel, at least.

10) Resident Evil 4- This was one of those times when a game came out of nowhere. Even reading previews for it, I expected RE4 to be nothing more than a slightly better looking but same old, same old entry in the series since all the others were. But, as it turned out, RE4 was completely awesome and went on to win Game of the Year from almost everybody. Though its best version is on the Wii, Resident Evil 4, along with Metroid Prime 1 and Smash Brothers Melee, was one of the best games for drawing in the hardcore crowd who looked at the purple Gamecube with its purse-like handle and scoffed.

11) Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance- I want to like the Fire Emblem series but I find them joyless to play. Yet again we see the problem with the Gamecube: there's this awesome strategy RPG for it but it's also the only one, so I guess you better like it otherwise you're shit out of luck. I give Nintendo credit for finally bringing this series over to the States but all it really did was make me realize I wasn't missing much all those years because a permanent death mechanic in a game with statistics and random elements makes me want to rip that tiny little disc out of my Gamecube and snap it in half. Keep in mind, too, that Path of Radiance came out in October of '05 and nothing of consequence came out for the rest of its lifespan. Unless you count Mario Party or Super Mario Strikers, in which case shame on you. You don't get any dessert.

My closing thoughts on the Gamecube?? It was a bizarre system for a bizarre time in Nintendo's life. The system itself is just odd--a cubic box with a carrying handle (really, Nintendo?? You think people just carry their consoles around without any kind of bag or case??) that ran what amounted to mini-DVDs and was played with a freakish controller. I mean, I still can't get used to that controller; it's like someone melted the remains of three other controllers together. More than all of that, the games were never what you expected, for better or worse: a Mario that was more of the same but with a gimmick, a Zelda that looked and felt totally different, a Resident Evil sequel that reinvented the series, a Final Fantasy that was focused on multiplayer (and non-online multiplayer at that), supposedly fun 'casual' games that were secretly complex and 'hardcore' (Mario Kart and Smash Bros.), and the first true Nintendo crossover casual game (Animal Crossing) along with their last true new hardcore IP (Pikmin). The TV commercials alone were a fascinating series of mistakes, making the system seem more 'hardcore' and 'artsy' than it really was before eventually switching to try to make it seem more casual and broadly appealing than it really was.

I have a lot of fondness for the thing, but it's a fondness tempered with sarcasm, irony, and cynicism. Bless you, Gamecube, you odd, odd thing.

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